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WASHINGTON—Last October national pro-life groups met at the Capitol with House GOP leaders to present their priorities for the new Congress. The coalition meeting itself wasn’t unusual, but the timing was: It was the first time the leaders met with pro-life groups to discuss the next Congress before the election had taken place. It was also the first time the organizations came with a unified agenda.
One by one, the Susan B. Anthony List, the National Right to Life Committee, March for Life, Americans United for Life, the Family Research Council, Concerned Women for America, and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops all voiced the same top legislative priority: Pass the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, the 20-week abortion ban that made it through the House (with six Democratic votes) in 2013 only to die in the Democratic-controlled Senate. Pro-life groups wanted to get the same legislation passed early in 2015 to set a positive tone for the uphill battle in the Senate.
Three weeks into the new Congress, the plan went terribly wrong. On Jan. 6 Reps. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., and Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., introduced the legislation, and the GOP leadership slated a House vote for Jan. 22. But even as the bill enjoyed a steady stream of new co-sponsors, within a week a group of Republican women withdrew their support and advocated for others to do the same. Leadership pulled the bill the night before the March for Life, leaving pro-lifers feeling betrayed and conservatives of all stripes wondering whether the new Republican majority is doomed to fail.
“If they can’t pass something as easy and as popular as the 20-week abortion bill, what can they pass of substance?” said ForAmerica chairman Brent Bozell.
IN 2014 NORTH CAROLINA Values Coalition and Women Speak Out PAC contacted 27,270 pro-life voters to encourage them to go to the polls in Rep. Renee Ellmers’ Republican-leaning district. They also spent $720,000 on television ads in Raleigh, her prime media market. Ellmers had publicly opposed the 2012 state amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman, and she later angered some conservatives on immigration; but she had stood strong on the life issue: She voted for the 20-week abortion ban and spoke in favor of it during the 2013 floor debate.
On Jan. 9, Ellmers was one of 113 co-sponsors, including two Democrats, who officially added their names to the new bill. Franks and Blackburn, who had volunteered to help reintroduce it, kept the same language that passed in 2013. The bill would prohibit abortions after 20 weeks, except to save the life of the mother and in cases of rape or incest that are reported to authorities. A November Quinnipiac poll found Americans supported such a bill by a 2-to-1 margin.
On Jan. 12, another 15 co-sponsors signed on to the bill, but not everyone was lining up to join the effort: Several Republican women didn’t like the reporting requirement for rape and incest victims who want an abortion later than five months into pregnancy. In 2013, the Rules Committee had added the rape/incest exception after Franks made a controversial comment while the bill was in the Judiciary Committee. The House voted on it before considering the full legislation, but several women were surprised to find the language now part of the base bill.
On Jan. 13, 12 more Republicans co-sponsored the bill, but Blackburn was already advocating for pulling it. Majority Whip Steve Scalise called a late afternoon meeting with the dissenting women, led by Blackburn, Missouri Rep. Ann Wagner, Indiana Rep. Jackie Walorski, and Wyoming Rep. Cynthia Lummis. It resolved nothing.
The next morning, Jan. 14, North Carolina’s Ellmers chaired a prescheduled meeting of the Republican Women’s Policy Committee, and every woman present (though not all 23 in the conference) supported altering the bill. That day 16 more Republicans signed on as co-sponsors—including North Carolina Rep. Virginia Foxx—pushing the total to 156 as the House and Senate GOP conferences traveled to Hershey, Pa., for their first joint retreat in a decade.
‘In difficult times you really find out who the real leaders are, and there’s no one stronger than Virginia Foxx on the issue of life.’ —Penny Nance
Conversations on the bill continued at the retreat, but many members—and pro-life groups back in Washington—still didn’t realize there was a problem until Ellmers stood to address the conference during the open mic portion of a closed-door meeting. She voiced disapproval not only for the reporting requirement but also for the timing: She said voting on the bill so early in the new Congress could turn off millennial voters. (Polling shows millennials support the ban in similar numbers to other age groups.)
New Jersey Rep. Chris Smith arose to offer an impassioned rebuttal, arguing that people always say it’s a bad time to pass pro-life legislation. Smith, the third-longest-serving Republican, cited the partial-birth abortion ban and several of the 17 pro-life riders that are attached to every appropriations bill. “People always said wait till later,” he told the room, but now even President Barack Obama signs spending bills that include those pro-life provisions.
Congress returned on Jan. 20, two days before the March for Life. That day the legislation picked up 24 more co-sponsors, including the first Democratic woman, Guam Rep. Madeleine Bordallo (a nonvoting member), but the two it lost stole the headlines. Ellmers and Walorski went to the House floor to withdraw their sponsorship of the bill, catapulting the spat into national news.
The next morning at a members meeting in the Capitol basement, Blackburn took the open mic and asked for all staff to leave the room. She then issued a plea to pull the bill, sparking a lengthy conversation among members. Not every Republican woman spoke against the bill, but not one stepped up to defend it either.
The leadership pressed forward, and that afternoon on the House floor Rep. Virginia Foxx began presiding over consideration of the rule for the bill (a procedural step necessary to bring it up for a vote the next day). Foxx spoke in support of the legislation, refuted Democratic attacks, and cited statistics showing American support for the legislation and how women are 91 times more likely to die when they have an abortion after 21 weeks. Meanwhile, some of her female colleagues were working behind the scenes to scuttle the bill.
“I’ve never been prouder of an elected official in my life,” said Penny Nance, president of Concerned Women for America. “In difficult times you really find out who the real leaders are, and there’s no one stronger than Virginia Foxx on the issue of life.”
Foxx’s support wasn’t enough. Facing the possibility of two dozen or more defections, GOP leaders pulled the bill Wednesday night and replaced it with one that codifies the Hyde Amendment prohibiting taxpayer funding for abortion.
THE NEXT DAY, following the March for Life, dozens of angry activists gathered outside Ellmers’ office to demand answers. Most viewed Ellmers and Walorski as the lead instigators since they “took a family conversation and made it public,” as one activist put it.
Following constituent pushback, both Ellmers and Walorski posted social media messages saying they supported the bill even after withdrawing their sponsorship, but pro-lifers were not satisfied. “We feel betrayed,” said Tami Fitzgerald, executive director of North Carolina Values Coalition, one of the first to arrive at Ellmers’ office. “It’s one thing to say you’re pro-life, but it’s another thing to say it while you’re working behind the scenes to derail the biggest pro-life victory in a decade.”
Who ultimately deserves blame depends on whom you ask. Supporters are quick to defend the House leadership, while dissenters say leaders refused to heed their concerns—which they say date back to when the bill passed the first time.
Several members expressed frustration that the reporting requirement created the problem, since it was Blackburn who led the effort to include the language in the 2013 bill. When she backpedaled, the National Right to Life Committee released a 2014 questionnaire from Blackburn stating her support for a reporting requirement.
I asked Blackburn when her personal concerns arose, and she declined to answer. She wouldn’t deny that she led the effort to pull the bill: “I think it’s appropriate that we continue to have a family discussion about how we get this bill right.”
For some lawmakers, including Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who is sponsoring the companion bill in the Senate, getting it right means eliminating the reporting requirement. Pro-life leaders take issue with that approach, because they say it could lead to unscrupulous abortionists exploiting a loophole. A compromise may lie in requiring a third party, such as the abortionist, to report the crime.
Lawmakers and staff close to the situation were hesitant to go on the record, because they don’t want to hurt ongoing negotiations. In late January Ellmers met with Majority Whip Scalise and had dinner with Franks to discuss a path forward. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy has vowed to bring back the legislation, and Blackburn told me she’s still working to get it passed. “It’s not a matter of if but when,” Rep. Chris Smith, co-chairman of the Pro-Life Caucus, told me. “This is a speed bump that will be overcome.”
For now, the GOP’s unforced error has shaken pro-life confidence and given the opposition a chance to gloat. Democrats called Ellmers “courageous” and left for their Philadelphia retreat giddy over GOP divisions that now stretch “even to abortion.”